Relatively Unbalanced: Reply to Larkin II · 31 January 2005

By David Horowitz

(Below AAUP representative Graham Larkin attacks David Horowitz and the Academic Bill of Rights. Horowitz's response follows).

An Open Letter from Graham Larkin to David Horowitz

28 January 2005

Dear Mr. Horowitz,

Thank you for your response to my recent investigation of your interest in promoting left-right balance. In it, you urge me to comment more on the specific contents of the Academic Bill of Rights, rather than on your statements in defense of the Bill. While I'm more than happy to share my thoughts on the Bill's contents, it is not easy, in the context of our exchange, to separate this material from your own arguments. Indeed, I think it would be very enlightening to show how your own way of thinking epitomizes many of the things that most trouble me about the Bill. A consideration of competing concepts of truth (or, as some would have it, "truth") should make the case.

To my mind, one of the ABOR's most unsettling features is its encouragement of epistemological relativism. For instance it states that

human knowledge is a never-ending pursuit of the truth, that there is no humanly accessible truth that is not in principle open to challenge, and that no party or intellectual faction has a monopoly on wisdom.

Further down, the Bill refers to "the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge." My gut reaction to this kind of radical relativism is a pragmatic one. As the saying goes, it's good to keep an open mind, but don't keep it so open that your brain falls out. Unlike those people who only ever put the word "truth" in quotation marks, I feel that some principles, ideas and conventions are more right than others, even in cases when their truth-value is not categorically demonstrable. Otherwise, what is to prevent us from slipping into a dangerous moral relativism?

When it comes to loosening prevailing standards of truthfulness, you certainly practice what you preach. For instance, in paragraph 11 of your latest response, you imply that you had not read a document which is written in the first person, and published in your magazine, complete with your name and an image of your signature at the bottom. After insisting that the piece was entirely ghostwritten, you go on (in the interest of denying that you never talk about balance) to disclaim any knowledge of the statement that the ABOR "demands balance in reading lists," even though you cannot deny my observation that this very passage is actually an unsourced quotation (or variation of a quotation) of something you wrote elsewhere. You wrap up this prodigious little nugget of indirection by simply "plead[ing] guilty to not paying more attending [sic] to my fund-raising mail."

To those of us who don't share your ABOR-endorsed relativism, you're guilty of a lot more than neglecting to check your mail. By the measure of the enduring civil standards upheld in reputable academic research, this kind of double- or triple-dealing is simply inexcusable. Like every academic I know, I personally make a habit of reading all first-person statements that I authorize to bear my signature. Indeed, I go so far as to actually write any such statements myself. After that, I stand behind my words. In my profession, writing one's own material, and standing behind it, is nothing short of an ethical imperative. For academics, serious writing is properly viewed as an outward sign of inner integrity -- or, as the case may be, lack of integrity. That's why we consider plagiarism and ghost-writing to be such grave offences. (Another practice that keeps us honest is linking readers to our sources by means of footnotes or other citation methods, even when these sources complicate our argument.)

In short, by academic standards, your cavalier practice of allowing your name to be attached to an influential document that you didn't write (even if it is "very obviously a direct mail solicitation," as if that matters) and your subsequent effort to shirk responsibility for the content, amount to a serious abuse of your readers' trust. Given the discrepancy between the standard academic reverence for truthfulness and your own more nonchalant attitude, is it any wonder that academics question your motivations when you try to force us to submit to "the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge?" This phrase, coupled with your own instrumental view of truth, makes me worry about how moral relativists might act on the idea of the "never-ending pursuit of the truth," or on the phrase that "there is no humanly accessible truth that is not in principle open to challenge."

Let's see how this last pronouncement breaks down in real life, by applying it to the following truth-claim.

People should always strive to be honest and free from delusion.

Does anyone care to challenge this? This statement is certainly not "open to challenge" according to my principles. I believe it to be both "humanly accessible" and absolutely, categorically true. Anyone who wants to pass blanket legislation suggesting otherwise had better come up with a pretty good explanation of what could possibly be wrong with my truth-claim, or my principles, in this particular instance.

On the subject of truth and delusion, I continue to be astonished by your persistent denial of the fact that the ABOR movement has repeatedly pushed for ideological "balance." In the face of all my evidence, you have had little choice but to back down just a little, yet you now ask

If "left-right balance" were the agenda of the Academic Bill of Rights, or the academic freedom campaign, why wouldn't it be at the center of both?

Given the facts of the matter, how can I respond, except by offering yet another example of the very term you initially denied using at all, and by choosing it from the "center" of your campaign? My latest example is a phrase in the Students for Academic Freedom Mission and Strategy statement. It asserts that

[b]ecause the university is not the arm of any political party but an institution whose purpose is to promote learning and the exchange of ideas, student programs of a partisan nature should be fair and balanced [my emphasis].

There you have it. That pesky "b" word again, and once again in an explicitly political context. Are parts of the SAF Mission Statement also ghostwritten, and full of things that its authors (whoever they may be) didn't mean to assert? Or is this sentence something that you're willing to stand behind? If you do admit to the reality of this call for "balance," how will you then reconcile it with your insistence that the "balance" issue isn't (as you now rephrase it) "at the center" of your freedom campaign? If a "Mission and Strategy" statement isn't "at the center" of the movement's agenda, then it's a funny kind of mission statement.

Thank you for your attention. I look forward to any future responses.

Graham Larkin
Stanford University, Department of Art & Art History
CA-AAUP VP for Private Colleges and Universities


David Horowitz Responds:

Graham Larkin says that for him one of the Academic Bill of Rights "most unsettling features" is what he calls its "epistemological relativism." He then quotes the passage in the bill that in his judgment expresses this relativism: "human knowledge is a never-ending pursuit of the truth, that there is no humanly accessible truth that is not in principle open to challenge, and that no party or intellectual faction has a monopoly on wisdom."

But, of course, this is not a statement of epistemological relativism. Epistemological relativism would be the claim that there is no truth that can be known, not that mortals have a difficult time arriving at it. The irony is that the dominant doctrines at Stanford and elite universities generally - post-modernism, deconstructionism, pragmatism - to name just three are indeed expressions of epistemological relativism. Why don't these disturb Larkin?

The view that the character of knowledge is unsettled should not only be uncontroversial, but is the very basis of a democratic pluralism and of the entire academic freedom tradition as defined by the organization to which Larkin belongs, which was honored by that organization until it was taken over by political ideologues (who of course have a stake in the idea that truth can be known and they are in possession of it). If the character of knowledge is settled and Truth is known then obviously both society and universities will - or should -- be governed by an orthodoxy which recognizes the Truth. Surely Larkin doesn't believe this. Or perhaps he does and that's why he is so intent on defending an entrenched intellectual bureaucracy which refuses to honor the principle of intellectual diversity. If you think really believe is one truth and you are in possession of it, then all disagreement will look to you like ignorance or error - and why would you want to credential or hire the incompetent?

As Larkin proceeds with his argument, he attempts to strengthen his position not with analysis or fact, but by escalating his rhetoric. By his third paragraph it is no longer merely "epistemological relativism" that concerns him but "radical relativism." The example he provides however is no more a statement of relativism than the previous one. What sets Larkin off this time is the reference in The Academic Bill of Rights to "the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge." This is pretty unobjectionable and generally accepted acknowledgement of the limits of human knowledge - not to the relativism of all its claims. What does it mean to say that "knowledge is advancing" if it does not mean that our present knowledge is unsettled? Does Mr. Larkin know with certainty that the universe began with a "big bang"? If he does, he knows something that our physicists don't. And if there is something so fundamental that the hard sciences cannot answer, is Mr. Larkin ready to claim that there are truths that our English literature professors possess that can't be challenged? I think these examples make clear that Larkin's position on "epistemological relativism and the state of our knowledge - and thus his criticism of the Academic Bill of Rights -- is absurd. Far from being radical, the Academic Bill of Rights is entirely traditional and is merely an attempt to revive an understanding of academic freedom that the American Association of University Professors once held, but no longer does.

Allow me this clarification, which is probably necessary, since the rest of Larkin's response shows that he is eager to split hairs. Obviously there are many truths that are settled, e.g., statements of facts such as that Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12. Among the truths that are unsettled, on the other hand, are the large understandings we have of the world which we call "perspectives," or philosophies, or ideologies. It is the attempt to make orthodoxies out of these perspectives, that the principles of academic freedom were designed to combat.

Larkin now descends into the tedious and unproductive. He is upset by my claim that I didn't read a fund-raising letter that bears my signature and that contradicts my statement that the Academic Bill of Rights does not seek to achieve balance in academic curricula or faculty hiring. The sentence in this fund-raising solicitation is said to outweigh the testimony of the Academic Bill of Rights itself (which contains no reference to "balance"). My failure to read and correct this fund-raising solicitation is held to be a great intellectual sin which shows that I am unfit to debate academics like himself (who never fail to read every word that goes out under their name). The fact is that I run an organization with 17 employees situated in half a dozen states, manage two website and have overseen the two-year development of a third, make 50 speeches or appearances a year out of state, do 150 hours of radio and TV interviews, write approximately 100,000 words a year, edit several hundred thousand, put on a dozen or more events involving hundreds of individuals in two American cities and one abroad, authorize a dozen or more solicitation letters like the one in question, and much else besides. What is the momentous deal in the fact that I failed to read carefully enough one fund-raising letter which contains one phrase that is important to Larkin because it provides the flimsy basis for his attack? Like the conspiracy theorists who think George Bush was behind 9/11, Larkin refuses to acknowledge the obvious. If I have rejected balance publicly, as I have on many occasions, including in my reply to him, then the fact that a copy writer wrote the opposite on one occasion and I failed to catch it, means exactly nothing. Yet Larkin rambles on for a couple of ridiculous paragraphs trying to make an Everest out of this pathetic molehill.

Larkin then repeats his previous unimpressive point with a different quote containing the dreaded word "balance." Unfortunately his inability to understand the plain meaning of an English text gets him off on another irrelevant tangent. The passage he has found in an article I wrote is this: "[b]ecause the university is not the arm of any political party but an institution whose purpose is to promote learning and the exchange of ideas, student programs of a partisan nature should be fair and balanced [Larkin's emphasis]." First, this is a passage about student activities programs -- not academic faculty nor academic classes. Second, it specifically refers to student programs that are partisan - i.e., that are calculated political activities. It says that because the university is an educational not a political institution these should be fair and balanced. Does Larkin think they shouldn't be?

Notice that even though we have come to the end of Larkin's commentary, and even though this is his third stab at critique of the Academic Bill of Rights, he still has not identified a single tenet of the actual Bill to which he objects. All he has done - besides picking phrases from other texts I have and have not written -- is misconstrue a premise of the Bill, its relativism or lack thereof. And even in regard to this premise, he hasn't demonstrated however mistaken he thinks it might be that the mistaken premise leads to a mistaken, or misguided, or dangerous conclusion.

David Horowitz